MORE than 50 garment workers at Haesong Corporation Ltd in Bangladesh have been injured after being attacked by hired goons.
The workers were taking part in a peaceful protest against the sweater manufacturer on 16 August, global union federation IndustriALL revealed on Wednesday. The sit-in and strike, which took place outside the Korean-owned company’s headquarters in Hizalhati, Gazipur, was organised by IndustriALL affiliate the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF).
Among those injured were the union’s general secretary and vice-president, both of whom are women. Furthermore, an NGWF organiser was kidnapped and only released many hours later at 9.00pm. Despite multiple requests, local police have refused to file workers’ complaints about the kidnapping or the attacks.
The demonstration was rooted to an ongoing dispute with Haesong, which suspended 218 workers on 4th April. The workers had been demanding payment for their unused leave for the year 2016. Haesong presented the workers with a ‘show cause’ letter saying they were being suspended under the pretext of false charges, including work stoppage.
Workers responded to the letter but the company has not since replied, nor has it officially terminated the workers. On 22 June 2017, following workers’ protests, they reached a written agreement with the factory management, which promised to pay all dues and legal compensations by 4th July 2017.
When the company failed to comply, the deadline was extended to 4th August. However, the workers have still not been paid, which led to the demonstration on 16 August where the attacks took place. The NGWF is demanding that the Bangladesh government arrests and puts the factory owner, general manager and the attackers on trial.
Workers’ representatives have also urged the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association to take steps for immediate payment of all legal dues to Haesong workers. They urged the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to intervene to make sure that the owner of Haesong does not flee from Bangladesh without addressing the workers’ demands.
Christina Hajagos-Clausen, IndustriALL director for the garment and textile industry said: ‘IndustriALL strongly condemns the physical attacks on Haesong workers and the kidnapping of a union activist. Haesong must respect workers’ rights, reinstate suspended workers and should immediately release their dues and wages. The government should take stringent action against the attackers.’
Amirul Haque Amin, President of NGWF, said: ‘All suspended workers should be reinstated, and pending wages and dues must be paid immediately. The factory management must bear all expenses for medical treatment of injured workers. In the meantime, the government should investigate and take action against the police officer who refused to take workers’ complaints.’
• Trade unionists from garment producing countries met on 14–18 August in Yangon, Myanmar, to discuss organising in the supply chain and campaigning for a living wage. Concluding three years of work on organising in global supply chains and campaigning for living wages under two projects funded by German organisation the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), participants from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa and Turkey, compared strategies and evaluated progress in an industry that is seen as synonymous with low wages, long working hours and sub-standard working conditions.
Welcoming the unionists to Myanmar, many of them for the first time, Maung Maung, President of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar, provided an update on discussions for setting the second minimum wage in the country. Myanmar’s first ever minimum wage was introduced in 2015 at 3,600 kyats a day (US$3.6).
It is far from a living wage and unions are currently conducting wage research around the country, before putting forward new demands at the end of September. Sharing successful strategies for organising in the supply chain, participants from the Philippines spoke of the increased strength gained by using such alliances.
Myanmar unionists stressed the importance of education: ‘We meet workers in the streets and in tea shops, and teach them about their rights and the law even before the union in the workplace has been officially registered.’
Turkey counts 1.1 million workers in the textile and garment industry, and there is a need to educate workers on unions and collective bargaining agreements: ‘Organising is made additionally difficult as it is often linked to a big risk of dismissal.’
Implementing global framework agreements
IndustriALL has signed global framework agreements (GFAs) with Inditex, H&M, Mizuno and Tchibo. Talking about the implementation of the GFA with H&M in Cambodia, IndustriALL’s Christina Hajagos-Clausen presented the work of the national monitoring committees (NMC) – now set up in a number of countries – as conflict solving mechanisms.
She said: ‘The NMCs consist of three union representatives and three H&M representatives, and they give us a possibility to exchange concerns. The GFA has been instrumental in resolving conflicts in Myanmar and Pakistan. There is a shift in the supply chain, a move away from voluntary initiatives to functioning industrial relations.’
Creating a level playing field for wages
Campaigning for a living wage is a key goal of IndustriALL. Many speakers talked about the inadequacy of garment worker wages and how difficult it is to negotiate higher wages when factories are being squeezed by their multinational brand customers.
IndustriALL assistant general secretary Jenny Holdcroft says that unions must look beyond the minimum wage and push for a new wage fixing mechanism that takes account of the way that brands contract with suppliers and the prices they pay.
The meeting was joined by Frank Hoffer, newly appointed Executive Director of the ACT initiative between IndustriALL and global brands who spoke of how ACT aims to introduce industry collective bargaining linked to brand purchasing practices to garment supply chains.
He said: ‘The minimum wage does not take into account other wage-related factors like working hours, skills training and productivity. We need a system that lifts standards across the market and enables workers to enforce their own agrements.
‘To achieve a living wage there is a need for higher wages to be set across the entire industry in order to prevent individual factories and brands from negotiating lower prices based on lower wages.’
While many of the countries represented at the workshop have a minimum wage, this is set at a level that does not enable workers to meet their basic needs, leaving them reliant on excessive overtime hours to supplement their wages. Having heard positive examples from South Africa, Sweden and Indonesia, the meeting concluded on the importance of making the case to employers and governments of the mutual benefits of introducing industry bargaining more widely in the garment sector.